By Jason Jewell.
This essay is based on remarks delivered at NatCon3 in Miami in September 2022.
Fusionism, the strategy to form an alliance between political conservatives and libertarians during the Cold War, was hotly debated among primary figures in the movement even as it shaped the founding of conservatism’s primary institutions. The fusionist strategy was the brainchild of Frank Meyer, a former communist who helped William F. Buckley launch National Review, conservatism’s flagship magazine, in the mid-1950s. In Meyer’s view, the conservative’s emphasis on virtue and the libertarian’s emphasis on individual liberty complemented one another in essential ways. Because true virtue cannot be coerced, it flourishes best in an environment of political freedom; thus, conservatives should favor liberty. Conversely, virtue is what enables freedom to be exercised responsibly; thus, libertarians should advocate for virtue. Conservatives and libertarians were natural allies, Meyer argued, not only against totalitarian states like the Soviet Union, but also against political progressives at home who wished to reduce individual freedom and who might also be soft on communism.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Kirk and Meyer had several published exchanges in the pages of National Review as well as other publications over their contrasting political philosophies. Meyer began the confrontation by attacking The Conservative Mind shortly after its publication in two different essays. In the second of these titled “Collectivism Rebaptized” (The Freeman, July 1955), Meyer criticized Kirk for allegedly betraying the principle of individualism, which alone could counter the authoritarian tendencies of the day, in favor of a conservative “tone” or “attitude” that had no “built-in defense” against collectivism. Kirk in turn criticized Meyer more indirectly by attacking John Stuart Mill, one of Meyer’s heroes, in National Review in 1956; Meyer took the bait and wrote a rebuttal to Kirk’s essay almost immediately.
The two traded barbs into the 1960s. When Meyer published In Defense of Freedom (1962), Kirk wrote an exceedingly harsh review of it, in essence telling readers the book was not worth their time. Elsewhere he wrote that In Defense of Freedom failed to make much of an impression among bright young conservatives, who preferred to discuss works by more traditionalist authors.
Nevertheless, when Meyer planned the symposium What Is Conservatism? (1964), Kirk agreed to contribute a chapter, and there appeared to be a thaw between the two writers at least from that point. In his book on the history of National Review, Jeffrey Hart writes that it was a “minor tragedy” that Kirk and Meyer did not see eye to eye on several important questions because, in his opinion, they were much closer to each other’s positions than one would think from reading their written exchanges. Was Hart correct? To answer the question, we must understand Kirk’s critique of Meyer and of libertarianism more generally.
Kirk never wavered in his criticisms of libertarians throughout his career; he was saying and writing the same things about them in the late 1980s that he was in the mid-1950s. His critique was centered on the idea that libertarians are disciples of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the foremost utilitarian thinker of the mid-19th century. To Kirk, Mill was a brilliant thinker who had succumbed to “ideology.” Unlike many 21st-century writers, Kirk meant something very specific by this term, looking back to its 19th-century usage to describe a political system deduced from one or a few abstract principles derived from speculative philosophy. In Mill’s case, the ideology was utilitarianism, and the abstraction (as laid out in works like On Liberty) was the “harm principle,” which Mill thought should inform (if not dictate) all political deliberation. Kirk insisted that attempting to fit the square peg of ideology into the round hole of reality inevitably leads to disaster if pursued consistently.
Kirk called ideology the “negation of prudence” and the “foe of imagination.” Both prudence and imagination are key ideas in Kirk’s political thought. For him, prudence is the preeminent political virtue, and all good politics is inspired by the moral imagination. An ideologue, by contrast, is a monomaniac who seizes onto one idea and attempts to ram it through in whatever circumstance he finds himself. Mill’s utilitarianism was presented as an effective way to address real social problems, but in reality it rested on the foundation of a polite, bourgeois society shaped by Western, Christian norms. Utilitarian libertarians of Kirk’s day failed to realize that those foundations had eroded to a great extent since Mill’s time. The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was one example: a dignified gentleman of old Vienna in his personal life, he took the values of Western civilization for granted amid his calls for laissez-faire. This assumption became a bone of contention within the libertarian camp before long, a fact that Kirk did not find surprising.
For Kirk, then, Meyer was an “ideologue of liberty.” Despite having turned away from communism (to his great credit), he continued to think in an ideological manner and believed that individual liberty was always and everywhere the answer to social and political questions. Fusionism was really libertarianism by another name, a program based on the abstract notion that freedom was the silver bullet to solve every political question. (Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), who was known as “Mr. Libertarian” during his life, agreed that fusionism was simply libertarianism, which he defined as a purely political program of anti-statism without any other cultural or social commitments.)
Kirk thought that Meyer framed the political question incorrectly by depicting it as a one-dimensional continuum with “individualism” on one side and “collectivism” on the other. He was fond of saying that good politics seeks three goals: order, freedom, and justice. If politics comes to be only about freedom, then order and justice will be shortchanged. Of the three goals, Kirk actually believed order was the most important; moreover, order in the commonwealth flowed from order in the individual soul. A people with disordered souls could not hope to sustain an orderly commonwealth. This is why Kirk did not consider himself primarily a political thinker. He was more concerned with prior orientations that make a healthy politics possible. Politics itself was too often the “preoccupation of the quarter-educated” (a descriptor he applied to Meyer). Kirk’s book A Program for Conservatives (1954) identified ten problems that conservatives must address, but fewer than half of the ten were primarily political problems. Readers who understand this crucial point see no incongruity between Kirk’s political writings and his literary corpus: critical essays, ghost stories, novels, and a monograph on T.S. Eliot, among other works.
Just as statesmen must break free of the one-dimensional tension between individualism and collectivism, thought Kirk, they must also jettison the distinctly modern idea that the individual and the state are the only two relevant categories in political discussion. Kirk looked back to an older vision of society in which individuals lived their lives primarily through participation in corporate entities: households, neighborhoods, churches, trade unions, guilds, and the like in addition to their municipalities and larger-scale political entities. In this corporate model of society, usually the state does not deal directly with individuals. To reach them indirectly it must interact with these other bodies, the “mediating institutions” of civil society, which the state properly recognizes and acknowledges in some cases as pre-political entities holding prior claims on individuals’ affections and loyalties.
Kirk agreed with the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) that one of the great tragedies of the 20th century was that the state had crowded out the mediating institutions, which desperately need to be reinvigorated in the present day. To him, libertarianism seemed unlikely to be of much help in that respect. Libertarians could and sometimes did argue that rolling back the state would create new space for these institutions to function and also lead people to see them once again as the primary vehicle for addressing social issues. However, the rhetorical emphasis of most libertarians on individualism and individual choice led Kirk to conclude that libertarian freedom was simply a strategy to empower people to walk away from their natural, healthy obligations to their families, churches, and communities.
Having understood Kirk’s serious reservations about libertarianism, then, why do I title this address “Russell Kirk vs. Fusionism: A Conflict in Name Only?” The answer is that Jeffrey Hart was correct in his assessment that when one gets down to brass tacks, there was a great deal of overlap between Kirk’s and Meyer’s goals. As I have already mentioned, Kirk, like libertarians, thought the institutions of civil society were better vehicles than the state for addressing social problems. He wanted to shrink the state; in fact, he wished to do so to a much greater extent than many of his fellow traditionalists. He favored a decentralized political order more so than many conservatives and often wrote of the conservative affection for the regional and local variety of custom and culture. As his career progressed, as I have argued elsewhere, Kirk became more and more favorably disposed toward the free market and softened some of his earlier seeming hostility to free trade.
Although Kirk denigrated libertarians throughout his career, he left a significant loophole in his rhetoric. People who call themselves libertarians but who also believe in God and respect the U.S. Constitution, he wrote, are really conservatives who have a faulty grasp of political terminology. These “libertarians” were not the targets of his criticisms. We should keep this qualification in mind when evaluating Kirk’s position on fusionism. Were Kirk suddenly to come back to us today, he might find that he had more in common with many self-described libertarians than with conservatives who criticize the market economy and seek top-down solutions from Washington for most social problems.
Jason E. Jewell is a professor of humanities at Faulkner University, where he directs the Center for Great Books and Human Flourishing. He was a Wilbur Scholar at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in 2019.
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